Christmas, Rewrapped: Navigating Overseas Holidays, Part I

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ChristmasYour first year overseas has a way of rearranging your life, your brain, your family, your body. So it makes sense your holidays would follow.

You may be wondering what Christmas looks like away from the lines to meet Santa, the obnoxious Black Friday ads–but also far from the welcoming hugs from mom, the family clustered around the tree or piano belting out carols.

My experience? Like most of overseas life, there were notable griefs and clarifying, memorable triumphs. Here, thoughts from my first Christmas season in Africa (edited from the original post on

It needs to be said. For a mzungu (foreigner) from the Midwest, Christmas on the Equator is a little weird.

The sun is shining away at a pleasant 80 or so degrees. My mango tree is finishing up its dazzling season, and my avocado tree is about to get started. My internet is too slow and pricey to stream carols (paying by the gig? What’s that all about?). The only thing dusting everything is…dust.

But to be honest, it’s not just living in a place that has no idea what a “white Christmas” is (“does that mean there are a lot of white people?”). Truth: A lot of what “wraps” the true meaning of Christmas for me—around the real package of Christ’s birth—is not there this year.

There are no light displays, few Christmas programs, no parties that I know of (is it me?), no almond bark or molasses or wassail or corn syrup or peppermints or Pumpkin Spice Lattes. You won’t find any Salvation Army bell-ringers, and only the large, commercial stores have (wow! Let’s call them eye-catching) decorations.

Most people here can’t afford presents, much less new ones. My friend’s gift to her grandmother is a chicken and a bag of sugar. And after selling so many of our material possessions, we’re trying to keep things simple, too. But it can be a bit challenging to find mzungu-ish gifts anyway.

More than anything, my extended family is scattered around the world like tinsel.

If I’m honest, I don’t want to think much about what would make things more Christmas-y.

It’s painful.

Do Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire…Matter?

But I know God created seven feasts for the Old Testament Hebrews, which tells me something. Heck, Jesus’ big debut was making wine from water for a wedding. The Bible ends with His own wedding.

God is the pinnacle of our joy, of our feasts and revelry.

And I think He uses our senses—the evergreen smells; the clam dip (our weird family thing); the fairy lights; Jack Frost nipping at your nose—to cement our minds to what we can’t see.

All the hoopla for a holiday or wedding or any other celebration is not just a symbol. It’s a taste-it-see-it-smell-it-feel-it-hear-it cue for our brains to know, this is good stuff. It’s Psych 101: positive association. With seven annual feasts, you know that the Hebrews, too, associated certain dishes and smells and landscapes with feasting. Maybe the Israelites knew Hadassah made the best matzoh, or Great-Aunt Hephzibah made the best lamb broth, or that the air was filled with chaff after harvest.

Like incense or communion bread, our senses help us associate, this is what’s worth celebrating, worth pulling out all the stops. Taste and see—our God is good. He’s the fullness of all we’re hoping for, all that truly fulfills us.

When You’d Rather Hide Out in a Tinsel-free Closet

Plus, I’ve got the kid element going on over here. As much as I would rather close myself in the closet for awhile—maybe to avoid the seizure-inducing light cycle of our hand-me-down tree?—I don’t want my kids to think, “I can’t wait till we can actually celebrate Christmas in the States.”

I don’t want Christmas to pass them by. More importantly, I don’t want my kids to miss the significance of this day, of God’s gift. Really, I shouldn’t be missing it either.

So. I am setting my internal bah-humbug aside. We’re getting creative.

Rewrapping Christmas

Stockings will be hung by the windows with care. Our garage-turned-schoolroom ceiling is covered with various lengths of thread suspending my kids’ paper snowflakes (my youngest calls them “cornflakes.” Have we been in Africa too long?). With the school doors flung open in the balmy weather, the flakes swirl around. We’ve rolled out and baked salt dough ornaments to paint. I think we’ll mix up some no-corn syrup homemade marshmallows next week (more Little House on the Prairie than Martha Stewart), maybe float them in some homemade cocoa.

And there are a lot of ways for kids to give and serve! We assembled “Christmas bundles” with friends in local saucepans for some of the poorer of the poor, stuffed with matches, candles, tea, sugar, laundry powder, Bibles.

I’m blasting Christmas music and dancing around with my kids. Though I admit to fast-forwarding through “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

There are some definite perks to a tropical Christmas. A Ugandan friend decorated the tree with us this year, hoisting the kids up to the higher branches and singing along to our favorite Christmas songs. Things are blessedly simpler this year—a lot less stuff, a little more originality.

It won’t be the same. But that’s not all bad.

After all: Yes, moving overseas messes with my Christmas. It messes with my life. But honestly? Neither of them were “mine” to begin with.

Moving overseas is a chance to distill Christmas to the parts of it that remain without my cultural accoutrements. Christmas has always been his.

And maybe, like a few other guys who traveled far for a king, this is another chance to offer a gift to the desire of nations.

Grab Part II here.

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